Alaskan Radio in the ‘Old Days”

ALASKAN RADIO IN THE ‘OLD DAYS’

Steven Levi

In every part of every state in the union there was once a frontier. It was usually before anyone currently living was alive, but it was there, that fleeting, golden moment passed down from grandparents to grandchildren ad nauseam about the days before there was all of this “modern nonsense.” This frontier period, the old folks say, was long before asphalt streets, cement sidewalks or street lights. It was back in those glorious days when children walked to school for an hour through blizzards of snow after they had already milked half the cows in the family herd.

While some states, like Massachusetts or Georgia, can boast of a frontier era that ended three hundred years ago, in other places, like Alaska, the frontier is still alive and well. The only difference, it should be added, is that in Alaska the parents telling the stories may very well have walked to school for an hour in the snow through a blizzard — but they didn’t have to milk the cows first. Reindeer, maybe, but not cows.

One of the nice things about living in America’s last frontier is that most of the tales you are being told are being told by the people who actually lived them. For all intents and purposes, Alaska only broke into the ‘modern era’ with the development of the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay in the early l970s. As late as the mid-l960s, radio in Anchorage was as primitive as it was in the American Midwest in the l930s.

The late Augie Hiebert remembered the early days of radio in Alaska well. The former owner of KTVA, KNIK and KBYR in Anchorage, Hiebert came north in August, l939, to build KFAR in Fairbanks, the first radio station in the Alaskan interior. It started as a l,000 watt station serving a community that had fewer than 3,500 people.

“When the war came,” recalled Hiebert, “we convinced the FCC to let us to become a ‘clear channel station’ and boost our power up to l0,000 watts. That way we could act as the communication hub for the Interior — and the military wanted that contact with the scattered bush communities.” After the war, the FCC allowed KFAR to maintain their signal on the band they use today.

In those early days of Alaska radio, Hiebert recalled, KFAR tried all kinds of antics. “One time we even took a microphone up in a helicopter. As a publicity stunt we ran out a couple hundred feet of wire off a spool and spoke on a microphone hovering over Fairbanks. It made radio broadcasting more interesting for our listeners — and it was a first.”

KFAR also pioneered quite a few programs that are still used today. One of them was TUNDRA TOPICS. “[At KFAR] we would broadcast weather reports and bush plane arrival times. Sometimes bush pilots would be delivering groceries to a landing strip that was ten, fifteen miles from a mine. If the pilots buzzed the mine to let the men know their groceries had arrived it still took the miners an hour to get to the landing strip. By that time a bear could have eaten all the groceries. We would broadcast the bush plane’s arrival time so the groceries could be met on the landing strip.”

There were also moments Hiebert remembered well. “One time we got an emergency message from the NC (Northern Commercial) Company. A family out of Fort Yukon had been sold some toxic seed potatoes by mistake. If they had eaten those potatoes, well, they might have died. We announced an emergency call over the air hoping that someone in Fort Yukon would get the message. Somebody did and went upriver to warn the family. As I remember, they caught the family just as they were about to sit down to a dinner on lethal potatoes!

“Another time I remember we went out with the military on an emergency evacuation. They flew out of Fairbanks dragging a glider on a cable behind them. When they spotted the stranded man, they let [the glider] land nearby where it could be picked up. Then the crew on the ground set up a frame to stretch a cable overhead so the C-54 could pull it up off the ground. It was a perfect snatch. Sometime later I was told that the military had abandoned that rescue practice. When I asked why, I was told, ‘. . . . because we lose too many DC-4s doing it that way.’”

Hiebert came to Anchorage to design KENI radio in l949. In May of l953, using $25,000 Cap Lathrop had left in his will, Hiebert formed Northern TV and established, KTVA, the first television station in Alaska. He also founded KNIK in l960, Alaska’s first FM station. Northern TV established itself in the McKinley Building — later called the McKay Building and now the McKinley Building at 4th and Cordova — where it survived the Great Earthquake of 1964.

“Right after the quake the building looked like it had been bombed out. We were the only people left in the structure. Everybody else was gone. We had our antenna on top so we really couldn’t move overnight. We spent two more winters there and it got so cold we had to put in 6 oil stoves to heat the rooms. At first we just stuck the stacks out the window but the wind kept blowing the smoke back inside. Then we put a collector on all the stoves and ran the pipe into the ventilation shaft giving us a l4-story chimney. That worked.”

The late Al Bramstedt, Sr. also has fond memories of pioneer radio. “I was going to school at the University of Washington in Seattle when someone in class told me about a job with KFAR in Alaska. About Christmas time in l939 I got a call that I could have the job. Jobs were hard to find in those days, right at the end of the Depression. I had been working in the lumber mills part-time but I loved radio. Five days later I was on the S. S. Alaska headed north. I made $l65 a month when I got to Fairbanks; when I got married in July of l940 I got a $l0 raise.”

Bramstedt also recalled some of the firsts for radio in Alaska. “Augie Hiebert came up with this great idea of covering a sled dog race. Back then the race was from Fairbanks to Livengood, about 90 miles. To cover the race, we established checkpoints along the trail and flew over the racers broadcasting the results by short wave. That was the first time that had been done and we’re still using the same checkpoint system today.” Bramstedt, who was never fond of airplanes, also remembered the time he and Hiebert flew over the scene of an air crash. It took them a while to find the spot, which turned out to be nothing more than a blackened streak on the face of a mountain. But the flight was so turbulent that both men suffered from air sickness — horribly. “When we got back on the ground,” Bramstedt recalled, “we really had to edit that tape.” [Bramstedt was also the first radio newsman to fly over the North Pole. That was in l949.]

KFAR was also the first station to cover the breakup of the Tanana River at Nenana. Radio personality Ed Stevens was assigned to cover the breakup and brought mountains of supplies and “grub” into KFAR the day before he left. Cap Lathrop, who owned the station, came out of his office in a rage, Bramstedt recalled. “Cap spoke two languages: English and profane. He was speaking profane that day. ‘What the *%$* are you doing sending that son-of-a-b**** out on the Tanana River for,’ he snapped. ‘He’s going to sit on the bank on his @#$ out there for six weeks on my payroll!’ After about ten more minutes of profanity I went upstairs. But he hadn’t told me not to do it so I sent Ed out anyway. Two days later the Tanana broke. KFAR was even written up in Time Magazine.”

Another of the pioneers of frontier radio is the late Ruben Gaines. Gaines came to Alaska in l946 to join Augie Hiebert and Al Bramstedt at a seven-year old station, KFAR. “Cap Lathrop owned that station,” Gaines reminisced, “and everything was First Class. That’s the only way Cap did things.” But compared to radio today, KFAR was “pretty primitive,” Gaines recalled. “We broadcast the first parachute jump on Arctic soil in l946, the first Tanana Breakup and the first sled dog race ever aired live.” One of the first remote broadcasts, Gaines recalled with mirth, “was the Great Fish Wheel Gold Rush. Some Native from up around Fort Yukon came to Fairbanks and claimed they’d found some gold in their fish wheel on some slough off the Yukon River. I got assigned to go back incountry and do a tape of the rush. It was about 40-below and we had to have our own power source out there. We didn’t know it then. But we did when we got back to town. Everything sounded like Donald Duck.” Asked about the authenticity of the gold rush, Gaines replied with a grin, “Well, there wasn’t any gold out there.”

[As an aside, Al Bramstedt claims credit for starting the rush. Reverend Ed Vadten from Fort Yukon had mentioned that a Native named Clifton Bergman had discovered some gold nuggets in his son’s fish wheel. Walking down the stairs at KFAR, Bramstedt mentioned it in passing to Bill Strand, the Editor of the Fairbanks News Miner. It was banner headlines that evening and the slough was called Clifton Slough after the Native who made the find. Even though it was the middle of the winter, Bramstedt remembers going out to the Fish Wheel Gold Rush and watching pilot Bill Lund break through the ice on the slough and pan out a “large nugget. We just figured he had just pulled it out of his fist,” Bramstedt said as he smiled.]

Interestingly, much of the programming on KFAR in those days came from the military. “We used to get AFRS [Armed Forces Radio Station] music sent to us directly.” It’s hard to translate how important the radio was in those days, Gaines stated. It was more than just a machine that played music in your home. It was your window not only to your community but to the world. “More than that, it was the theater of the mind. The listener had to be in cahoots with the announcer, to think who he was and what he looked like. We did all those programs live, eight hours a day. We showed up for work and talked for eight hours. Not like it is today.” Gaines holds the record for the longest running daily program in Alaska radio history, “Conversations Unlimited,” which started in l946 and was only taken off the air in l985.

Gaines came to Anchorage in l950 to work at another Lathrop station, KENI, which was located in the now-defunct Fourth Avenue Theater building. “We had some reel-to-reel equipment there and got some of our music from the Lower 48. The news came in over a wire but it was still strictly rip-and-read.” But in Anchorage, Gaines and his good friend Ed Stevens were best known for their ability to recreate baseball games. “We had a friend of ours in Cleveland who would listen to the baseball game. When it was over, he’d call us at the radio station and give us an inning-by-inning breakdown. Then Ed and I would recreate the whole game over the next two hours. We’d use a little hickory stick and strike the table for a hit and then swap an empty toilet paper roll for the ball being caught in a mitt. We had two types of crowd recordings too, one for cheering and the other for screaming outrage. After we finished, Ed and I would walk downtown for a drink. When we came into the club, everyone would say, ‘Hey! You’re supposed to be in Chicago, New York or wherever the game had been played.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of radio that has disappeared is the community involvement. DJs were not just voices on the radio; they were people who were in the streets. They knew what was happening in town because they were personalities about town. Drinking, for better or worse, became an occupational habit because the bars and taverns were where the locals gathered to gossip. As far as the DJs were concerned, these tales were grist for the radio mill. And, of course, the more established the DJs, the more they knew about the local personalities, the harder they were allowed to yank the tiger’s tail.

But as the listening markets got larger, the DJs lost their personal contact with their listeners. As the audiences grew larger still, the DJs became even more remote. “On many stations,” former announcer Joe Flood recalled, “we couldn’t even use our own names. One station in town even had DJs use the names of drinks: Johnny Walker, Tom Collins.” Flood started working in radio in l96l and came to Alaska in l967 right out of the military. Since then he has worked at KGOT, KENI, KYAK, KBYR, and KANC in Anchorage and did a show on KJNO in Juneau. “Radio is like a drug. Once you’re hooked you just can’t get away.”

And what was radio like in the 60s and 70s? “Well, we thought it was state-of-the-art,” laughed Flood. “It wasn’t but we thought it was. But Alaska was still pretty much a frontier. We still did the old rip-and-read news. The big thing then was to make someone laugh while they were on the air. I remember reading the news one day and watching one of the other DJs set the copy on fire. I had to read the news before the flames singed my fingers. All kinds of things happened in those days. I remember an old alcoholic DJ who died reading the news on the air. And there was a DJ who was reading the news when his secretary held up a sign that read ‘Your fly is open and I love you.” He bust a gut and started laughing hysterically on the air!”

As Joe Flood recalled, the stations were filled with “cowboys.” At one Anchorage station he refused to name “we knew the big time was coming when management finally broke down and bought a new transmitter. A NEW TRANSMITTER! That was big time! That was about l968. The DJs were really thrilled. One of the DJs, whose name I SWEAR I don’t recall, waited until the three workmen were in the transmitter room sweating and swearing with the new equipment. This guy sneaked into the transmitter room, strips off all his clothes and walks around the new transmitter stark naked. The workmen looked up in amazement and, without missing a step, this DJ said ‘Locusts’ and pointed back over his shoulder.”

But is there a future for radio in Alaska? Hiebert thought so. So do a lot of other old timer radio jockeys. “Sure,” said Hiebert. “As more and more radio stations compete for the same market the stations will have to specialize to survive. That will make the personality of the announcer critical again, something we haven’t seen in a number of years. I’m looking forward to that.”

There has also been a change in radio news. Gone are the days when national radio stations would send their news correspondence around the world as they did in the days before television. Today, that work is often done by freelancers. In Anchorage, Cary Anderson is a freelance radio newsperson who carries a portable ‘studio’ in the field but often works from his clutter kitchen table. He develops stories and then markets them to various networks. To date, Anderson has sold hundreds of radio pieces to CBS, NBC, ABC, Voice of America — Europe, United Stations, BBC London, BBC Scotland, Mutual, UPI, AP, IRN-London as well as to Australian and Canadian networks.

“No matter where you live or travel,” Anderson said, “there will occasionally be a story of national interest — if you know what to look for. From time to time, every corner of the world has something of national interest. This has increased the volume of news available and, as far as I’m concerned, the quality of the news as well. I live here so I know Alaskan stories better than someone who’s flown in for the day.”

Since radio is a ‘now’ media, and late breaking news is important, there isn’t much time to prepare. “Time is luxury in this business. You rarely get three days to do a story. When I get a couple of hours I like to embellish my stories. When I covered the whales trapped in the ice off Barrow, I added the sound of whales gasping, chain saws and helicopters in the background. That added to the drama — radio news doesn’t have to be just voice. Sometimes I have had to make 60-second stories in l5 minutes. I got a call at about 8:45 pm asking for a story to run on the 9:00 pm news. When the story came over the air, I was still re-winding my tape. That was quick!”

Freelancing for radio, as Anderson knows is not easy. When asked if he was making a living at it, Anderson replied “sometimes. After 11 years in the business I can call people up in New York and get assignments. But you have to be creative. Even after 11 years, about fifty percent of my assignments come from me, not the networks.”

The future of radio on the last frontier? Only time will tell. But then, the death of every media has been predicted when innovation produced a new means of communication. “When radio was invented, everyone said books and newspapers would be obsolete,” noted Hiebert, “and when television came along the same people said that radio was obsolete. The radio business will hurt, but it will recover. It’ll be with us for a long time — especially here in Alaska.”

Steve Levi has more than 80 books in print or on Kindle. He specializes in books on the Alaska Gold Rush and impossible crimes. An impossible crime is one in which the detective has to solve HOW the crime was committed before he can go after the perpetrators. In the MATTER OF THE DESERTED AIRLINER, an airplane with no pilot, crew or passengers lands at Anchorage International Airport. As the authorities are pondering the circumstances of the arrival, a ransom demand is made for $25 million in diamonds and precious stones. Chief of Detectives for the Sandersonville, North Carolina, Police Department, Captain Heinz Noonan, is visiting his in-laws in Anchorage when he is called onto the case. For the next 36 hours, he pieces together the puzzle of how the crime was committed. But can he solve the crime, free the hostages and locate the perpetrators before the ransom is paid? hhttps://www.authormasterminds.com/steve-levi

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